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What was the real reason behind the riots in Afghanistan?

Afghan officials blame the Taliban for violent reaction to Quran burning in the US. But the reality is more complicated.

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An Afghan policeman stands guard near the charred remains of a vehicle at the UN headquarters after protesters attacked the compound in Mazar-i-Sharif on April 2, 2011. (Sham Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan — The explosion of violence in Afghanistan following Pastor Terry Jones’ burning of the Quran in Florida last month shocked the world. In the troubled aftermath, Afghan officials are trying to assess the damage and apportion blame, with the Taliban coming in for the lion’s share of responsibility.

But while it is tempting to attribute the carnage to insurgent activity, many experts inside the country disagree. The horrific events that took place in Afghanistan are due to more systemic flaws, they argue.

The incompetence of the security forces, the frustration many Afghans feel toward their own government, as well as a long-simmering resentment of the international community far outstrip any anger Afghans feel toward the desecration by an obscure American pastor of Islam’s holy book, analysts said.

More than 20 people died, and more than 100 were injured in the protests that swept the country after news of the Quran burning reached Afghanistan. The most unsettling incident took place on April 1 here in the northern capital, Mazar-e-Sharif, where an angry mob stormed the United Nations compound after Friday prayers, killing seven U.N. personnel and at least five Afghans.

Mazar, capital of Balkh province, has traditionally been one of the safest cities in Afghanistan, with a booming economy and a fairly liberal population. The outburst of rage among the protesters had provincial officials scrambling to assign blame for the destruction to forces from outside Balkh.

In a press conference held just hours after the U.N. killings, the governor of Balkh, Noor Mohammad Atta, said that those responsible for the violence were from “other provinces, such as Herat and Kandahar.” He also attributed responsibility to “enemies of the Afghan government,” a shorthand for the Taliban, and promised to find and punish the guilty.

Gen. Daud Daud, police commander for Afghanistan’s northern provinces, also blamed the mayhem on “opposition infiltrators.” More than 30 people had so far been arrested, he said, and some had already confessed, but he declined to provide details.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed, however, denied that the insurgents had taken an active role in the events in Mazar.

“We support the people’s protests, but we were not directly involved,” he said in a telephone interview.

Some question whether the Taliban, who are drawn primarily from the Pashtun ethnic group, would be able to whip up a crowd composed mainly of Tajiks. Balkh has a predominantly Tajik population.

“In my opinion, the Taliban do not have the capability to destabilize security in major cities,” said Abdul Hadi Khalid, former deputy minister of the interior. “Some specific groups inside the government organize conspiracies to eject their rivals from power.”

Many suspect that the government’s eagerness to point the finger at the Taliban is a political ploy to distract attention from what appears to be the inescapable truth about the April 1 events: The Afghan security forces were incapable of controlling the protesters or preventing the violence.

This is doubly worrying given that Mazar-e-Sharif is slated to be one of the first major cities transferred to full Afghan security by July.

The demonstration on April 1 began from the Rauza, widely dubbed “the Blue Mosque” in the international press. According to security authorities, several thousand protesters poured out of the Rauza after Friday prayers, where mullahs had stirred emotions with fiery speeches condemning the burning of the Quran.

The Mazar Ulema, a council of religious scholars, had applied for permission to hold a demonstration after Friday prayers.

Mullah Abdul Hanan Hamed, acting head of Balkh’s Department of the Haj and Religious Issues, said that his organization had been aware of the planned protests. Hamed’s department issues local mullahs directives on Friday prayers, with bullet-point notes to aid them in writing their sermons.

“That day’s speech was supposed to be about the security transition,” Hamed said. “But in the letter we sent out to the mullahs we said that it was not a problem if they also condemned the burning of the Quran.”

The crowd was expected to march from the Rauza towards the site of the U.S. Consulate, to the west. But since the consulate is still under construction, the organizers changed plans at the last minute, directing the demonstrators to the U.N. compound a short distance away to the south.

Once there, they overwhelmed the guards, gained access to the premises, and went on a bloody rampage that resulted in at least 12 deaths and the destruction of much of the compound.

Maulawi Abdul Rauf Tawana, one of the organizers of the demonstration, openly blames the police, while also hinting that there were provocateurs among the protesters.

“It was not our job to take security for the demonstration,” he insisted. “That was the job of the police. We tried to identify the infiltrators, but the crowd was too big.”

Gen. Esmatullah Alizai, Balkh’s chief of police, did not disagree.

“We had deployed 200 police to ensure security during the demonstration,” he said “But the number of demonstrators was too large. We were told that they were heading to the U.S. Consulate, but then they suddenly turned towards the UN, and we were unable to control them.”

Security authorities in Balkh say there could have been as many as 10,000 demonstrators; other sources put the number closer to 4,000.